China's plans to put part of its abundant coal supply to use as methanol are likely being scrapped, over concerns about the great costs and energy required to liquefy coal. That coal mining is already quite dirty and that the coal-to-liquid (CTL) process produces large amounts of pollutants and greenhouse gases was not explicitly mentioned by the official who raised the possibility of such a move. "Liquefied coal projects consume a lot of energy, though the successful industrialization of liquefied coal could help reduce the country's dependence on petroleum," the anonymous official of the National Development and Reform Commission told Xinhua on Saturday.
Many, including John at Treehugger, heralded news of China's interest in "a major alternative fuel which does not exist in any other country in the world", that could produce 6 million tons of oil a year starting in 2008, not least because China is not oil rich, is growing increasingly dependent on petroleum, and, of course, has a hell of a lot of coal. Last year, as China's car population skyrocketed, it imported about 16.3 million tons of oil, driving up the country's reliance on foreign sources 4 percent to 47 percent. And despite concerns about its toxicity, methanol also burns cleaner than regular petroleum, and could prove cheaper too if gas prices go higher. Not to mention that it's not ethanol, which China has lately rejected for its threat to the nation's grain supply. In short, methanol seemed like a good solution to China's alternative energy needs...
But the fact is, methanol is highly polluting without the right technology to produce it. A report in April by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said liquid coal could lead to a 119 percent jump in greenhouse gases released per barrel of fuel if production and vehicle emissions were taken into account. At this stage, the technology for clean liquefication, such as carbon sequestration, is far from ready, certainly for China. Nuclear power for refining the oil has been floated as one "clean" option.
Still, no alternative energy is perfect, and China, like the rest of the world, needs some now. Just because the technology isn't there yet doesn't mean that it won't be with the right investment now. China is of course a great place for renewable energy investment (VC investment is up 159 percent this year), what with the government's interest in boosting cleantech innovation and the country's dire environmental situation. But if that investment is going to happen, at least in the case of CTL, it might need to start in the United States. For its part, China (in the wake of its climate change action plan) needs to continue thinking about how to improve energy conservation and efficiency, while gathering domestic and international investment into other alternative energies--and (cough) hopefully move away from coal altogether. : : Associated Press